Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
Aurora, Prologue

This page Copyright 2021, Karl Leffler
29 Firstmonth 543JR
10 November 2348CE
Lone Star System (Delta Pavonis)

System tug C484 was a battered old veteran of the Lone Star System. She had been pushing barges and tanks and ships for decades, far longer than any of her current crew had been alive. Yet she had been built well; reliable, rugged, too simple to fail. She had never been pretty, little more than a big fusion torch, her own fuel tank, and life support almost an afterthought. Her nose was a bumper, her face was grappling arms and a thousand scars from a thousand loads.
She was not a starship, she had no Marsten Drive of her own; if her work called her to the outer system, as it often did, she would be carried there by another vessel's Marsten Field. Her job was in realspace, to push things into necessary orbits for other people to work upon. She had pushed everything, and still did, from elegant passenger liners to sharp warships, to barges of ore for the orbital foundries to containers of waste for fertilizer in the farming toruses, and even whole space stations themselves, spinning or de-spinning them or raising them to higher altitudes or even setting them loose in the deeper space between worlds. C484 was a fixture in the system, even famous in her own right, with children building scale models of her. Her crew and owners, the heirs of those who had built her long ago, expected their grandchildren to still be flying her.
Toward that goal, her captain, Jolene Karmen, and her husband and Engineer, Nate White, were teaching their daughter, Kristine, how to fly. Thirteen Terran years old, the girl was catching on, showing a feel for the little ship and its controls.
C484 was too small and crude to be home to a Shipfolk Family; they lived in Jacinto Station at the L4 point of New Texas' largest moon, within the hyperspace Limit for safe Transition, though they would sometimes spend days aboard the tug. The current mission was like that, catching a stack of ore bundles from the outer system, seventy thousand metric tons of them, and guiding them into stable orbit above Crunch, the second habitable planet in the Delta Pavonis system, where the mills could turn them into products and the products into money. It would be a long, steady burn, to reach the correct velocity and angle for insertion. That was almost done: just two more hours of constant boost, then some adjustments, and they could detach and head home. It would take hours more to boost out of Crunch's Limit, dictated by the planet's gravity well, so their ride could safely Transition to hyperspace for the interplanetary flight which would otherwise take days; then hours more to reach L4. Kristine was looking forward to a long, hot bath, instead of sanitary wipes, and a good solid meal instead of bars and tubes.

Millions of years ago, before men existed, before their minds had evolved a capacity to imagine distant worlds circling alien stars, a piece of rock had collided with a piece of ice.
This collision was one of many which had taken place across the ages, here in the star system men would someday name Delta Pavonis. From it resulted fragments of both participants, each going its own ballistic way. In their many revolutions of their parent star, some collided with other bodies, joined with them or were deflected to new paths. Some of the particles of ice dipped down to the inner warmth and evaporated, their molecules then swept away by stellar wind. Some made many trips between the star and the outer darkness, and some of those journeys lasted longer than entire species had existed on Earth.
One particular piece had been comprised of both rock and ice. It too had rounded the system hundreds of times. Its last experience of warmth had been about the time the Montgolfier Brothers had first overcome gravity. This dirty snowball had dove close to the sun, losing some of its mass, the natural thrust driving it to a new course, into the black depths from which it had come. Now, after hundreds of orbits made by the inner worlds, it was returning, and suffering the same stresses again: ice would sublimate, vapor would expand, the object would move in reaction.
Now the piece was within the orbit of the third planet, and growing warmer. Now the ice within it was becoming volatile, now pressure was building-
Following the path of least resistance, vapor burst from one side of the body, and again the object's course was changed. It was spinning now, and more of the inner ice was exposed to the warmth of the sun, then hidden in cooling darkness to resolidify. Again and again the ice passed between heat and cold, pressure built and receded, until at last the ancient conglomeration could retain its shape no longer. Into a thousand more fragments, it exploded.
The pieces were not large, nor very metallic; some were indeed still simple water ice. Even if radar or the Marsten Detector had been active in the area, they might not have registered, or been recognized as dangerous, or even real, perhaps interpreted only as static.

System tug C484 was armored against collision, at vastly lower speeds. Its hull plating would take enormous stress in compression or torque and still hold pressure for its crew. The armorglas viewports were thick and narrow for further protection. Most of the panes were a hundred Earth years old.
At an estimated closing velocity of twenty-seven kilometers per second, eleven of the fragments struck.
Two solid centimeters' thickness of Hulloy was torn like a soda can by a highpower rifle. This created more fragments, of the hull itself, the deck, the control console, and of the three crew, each going in a new direction, striking and penetrating.
The shock was overwhelming. The family died instantly, never knowing what hit them.
One fragment had passed through the main computer. Normally this would cause the torch to shut down automatically, but another had destroyed the safety cutouts, causing a short circuit which overrode more failsafes. Another spasming actuator fired an attitude jet, changing the course of the tug and its load, while the torch still burned at five meters acceleration.
In a little more than two hours, seventy thousand tons of stone and metal would strike just outside the town of Rockville, population sixty-three thousand. The impact would release approximately three petajoules of energy, equivalent to about seven hundred kilotons of trinitrotoluene chemical explosive, or more than forty times the power of the atomic bomb which destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Independent Starship September Rose had completed yet another circuit of her triangle route: New Texas Superbeef to Monticello, the capitol world of the Jeffersonian Republic; manufactured goods from there to Adams' World, another of the First Wave and among the oldest; then lumber, much of it specialty or luxury, back to the Lone Star System.
The ship's First Officer, Solomon Danner, was looking forward to shore leave, not least in the little seaside city of Blanton, where he had left a delightful little grey-eyed brunette, and her sister, on his last visit. His account fob was showing his share of this trip's profits, which was considerable since he'd risen from Navigator to XO. The ship was in good order, most repairs having been performed in Transit by her efficient Engineering department. The crew seemed content as well, anticipating their own shares - Shino Kodobatsu was the kind of captain who threaded the needle to run a tight and a happy ship, not least by getting rid of troublemakers, or having his XO do it. The last such was Gary Yi'Kot, a Plains Tribe Eyani who just couldn't stop drinking. Danner had left him at a recovery clinic on Monticello, semi-conscious. He'd given Gary's pay fob to the director, Shliira, a Boksi female Danner had dealt with before, under similar conditions. He knew she could be trusted, and the crew knew Solomon could.
The Rose had Transitioned back to realspace at the traditional ten light-seconds from New Texas, well outside the safe Limit, which was usually about two. The nature of the fourth dimension allowed a ship to exit with its choice of velocity, within certain values; up to half the speed of light, in experiments, and in any direction. The ship's twin fusion torches were now burning to decelerate for orbital insertion over the second planet. Perceived weight was ten meters, a common standard for the several sentient species in the explored galaxy, more than Terra, less than Monticello. No changes or maneuvers were expected for several hours.
The ship's intercom sounded a brief alarm and said, "Now hear this. XO and Engineer to the bridge, at once. Repeat, XO and Engineer to the bridge immediately." Brow furrowing, Danner turned away from the galley he'd been heading toward and quickly climbed the ladder to the command deck.
There were Captain Kodobatsu and the ship's Navigator, Prrg, a Nikar male Danner had known for years, in many ships. Moments later the Engineer, Ju'Sak, a white-furred Ice Tribe Eyani, arrived, the set of his ears showing puzzlement.
"Gentlemen," Kodobatsu stated, "there is an emergency over Crunch." He illustrated in the holographic navigation tank. "An ore barge, seventy kilotons, is out of control and threatening to wipe out Rockville in less than two hours. More than sixty thousand people in that city."
Danner's role as Executive Officer included expressing concerns to the Captain. "What does that have to do with us?" he asked.
"Twenty-three starships in the system," Kodobatsu answered, "and they've all declined the risk of doing anything about it." He explained further: "Crew presumed dead, no response, no evident effort to steer. Still boosting at five meters, and telescopes are showing attitude jets firing randomly. Traffic control picked up the collision warning and broadcast it. They're getting deeper every second, inside the Limit... for most ships." At this, Kodobatsu turned to Prrg.
The Nikar were a reptilian race, mostly Humanoid in shape and size, but with a long tail, which in the case of Prrg's ethnicity was prehensile. Its tip began tracing patterns in the air behind him, and Danner knew his friend was thinking. Danner was a Navigator too, had held that berth on this ship before reuniting with Prrg at the end of the Nikar's last assignment - but Prrg was gifted in three-dimensional thinking, and fourth as well.
Without speaking, he stepped up to the holotank and began his work. It would have to be two Short Transits, with minutes to recharge the Marsten Drive and rebuild the Field each time; Delta Pavonis was in the way, with a deeper gravity well, and a wider Limit, than any planet. Prrg plotted an angular course, out of the plane of the ecliptic, above the sun's pole; then a second, down to where the target would be at that time. Prrg zoomed in and Danner saw the runaway was old C484. He frowned. That mean the Karmen Family was dead.
They had been good people. He had known them almost as long as he had Prrg.
The sphere of the hyperspace Limit expanded and changed color as Prrg magnified the display. He lifted his crocodilian head to meet the ice-blue eyes of Ju'Sak.
The Eyani were a six-limbed mammalian race, with an appearance somewhere between Terran bears and big cats, and "two arms, two legs, and two in between." "Saki" was an easy-going sort under most circumstances, but he could shift mental gears quickly, and then became all business. "I'd better get down there," he said briskly, already on his way to the hatch and ladder below, toward the engine room. "Send me the numbers as you get them." Then, through his wrist-puter, he was barking at his Engineer's Mate to "Cut boost, charge the Initiator, right now." In moments the freefall alarm sounded and the ship was weightless.
"And what do we do when we get there?" Danner asked his Captain... but he already had an idea.
"Well, Sol, someone who's a really good pilot will probably have to take the boat across and... figure something out from there."
Danner's jaw moved around for a few moments, his blue eyes narrowed, and then he said, "I reckon so."

Sol Danner was not a "really good" pilot - he knew of some, and had heard of others. He considered himself only adequate. Likewise he was not a Navigator of Prrg's level, he was not truly outstanding in any one field of operating a ship, but he was good enough in very nearly all of them. He'd never had trouble finding work, since resigning his commission in the Space Patrol.
The ship's boat, an old Patrol-surplus Type 208 medium shuttle, was docked near the Engineering compartment. Since he was going there anyway he would pick up some things - right after stopping by his cabin for his spacesuit.
The Engineer's Mate, a yellow-plumed Siv female named Jorda, was obviously worried, her pheathers rippling constantly. "Sol...?" she asked, eyes wide.
"Somebody has to, Jordi." He started stuffing things into a sack, and into pockets on his suit, which he was still putting on. Tools, yes, batteries, wiring harnesses - no, not this one, he'd been aboard old Four-Eight-Four, he knew what system they used, yes, that type of emergency computer.
"But... a Close Transit!" she said. "I've never done one before. Neither has Saki!"
"Prrg has," Sol answered, "and I was with him. It's awful, but he can do it, if he and Saki give each other the right numbers."
"What-" she swallowed. "What is it like?"
"Nausea, headache, muscle or joint pain, hallucination- it's different for everyone. You'd best be strapped in, suited. Your body might react involuntarily. Spread the word, will you?" Grabbing the last of what he thought he might need, he slung the satchel over his shoulder and snapped his helmet shut, then pulled himself through the hatch to the ship's boat.
The 208 was a good, reliable type of shuttle, atmosphere-capable, much evolved from the ancient lifting-body types before the Escape, and with its own little fusion torch. It could, for example, travel between Terra and Luna in four hours at an acceleration matching Earth's gravity, and then return, without refueling. Danner had flown several of them in his years with the Patrol, and this particular one many times.
He was still doing the preflight when the warning came through his suit radio: "All hands, prepare for Transition." This wasn't the hard part; a Sixth-Generation Marsten Drive, tuned by someone like Ju'Sak, could jump in or out of hyperspace without anyone aboard the ship noticing. No, it was the next one that would hurt.
A Short Transit of several light-minutes, within the same system, was common for interplanetary travel, and would actually use far less fuel than boosting and turnover in realspace, to say nothing of the enormous time savings. September Rose had a hyperspace speed of c128, a hundred twenty-eight times the speed of light relative to the "real" universe. Moving from the second planet, New Texas, to a point above the sun, took only moments.
About the same time would be required for the next leg, to where the third planet, Crunch, presently was in its own orbit, mostly on the other side of Delta Pavonis... but the difference would be how close the ship would have to exit hyperspace. A Close Transit was one which crowded the Limit, risking damage or injury from gravitational shear, not only from physical strain but from Marsten Radiation, which without protection would cause instantly-fatal brain damage to all known higher life forms. The Marsten Field was such protection, but the closer one came to a gravity well like a planet, the more energy was thrown against the Field, and the more risked leaking through. Solomon had done it only once before, years ago, racing another ship to port with a perishable cargo. That ship, Mabel Brown, had Transitioned at two point seven light-seconds from the surface of Albion. The electromagnetic pulse the event generated had resulted in fines from the planet's government for disrupting traffic, but the profit from Alexandrian neoprawns had been worth it and more.
Prrg had plotted a Transition of one point four light-seconds. Ships had been destroyed and men had died at greater distances.
If they didn't try, sixty thousand more would, instead.

Danner had relieved himself not long before, and he had been hungry, meaning there was little inside him to come out, when the Transition Effect gripped him - and his suit was designed to handle more than that.
Time seemed to slow.
He could feel it coming, as though rushing toward the planet, even strapped into the shuttle's command couch, with nothing to see but the Rose's hull through the windows.
Reality changed. In a moment of indeterminate duration, he felt outside himself.
Something had happened to him - something wonderful. A woman - a wife - beautiful, warm, so very alive. He could not see her clearly, only a sense of... whiteness... and of more happiness than he had ever known.
Then he was back in the universe according to Einstein and all his limbs were cramping and he was leaking from both ends and the suit was cleaning it up for him.

September Rose seemed unharmed by gravitational shear, but so had Mabel Brown. She'd needed a hundred hours in a shipyard, though the neoprawns had paid for that too. Ju'Sak would be busy now, but his part was done, and it was Solomon's turn.
"This is Danner," he announced on the suit's radio. "Boat is away, burning to intercept."
C484 was supposed to have boosted to brake into orbit over Crunch, the third planet in the Delta Pavonis system, to deliver her stack of ore to the orbital foundries. Instead, her thrust was misaligned and she was accelerating to impact the surface. Random bursts from the malfunctioning reaction-control system were constantly changing the predicted impact point... and would also make docking nearly impossible.
Crunch was the industrial district of the Lone Star System; already subject to constant bombardment from meteors, it had been continually mined for valuables since the Founding of the Republic. There used to be prisons here, and penal mines, but as criminals were removed from the gene pool by their intended victims, those had been phased out and were now either ordinary commercial operations, or museums.
Rockville was the second-largest city on the planet, straddling a river. Most of the fabberies and workers were here, manufacturing, packaging. It wasn't just sixty-three thousand innocent lives, but the economy of an entire star system at risk.
Danner increased the boat's thrust to fifteen meters, then twenty, watching the curving trajectory lines on the navigation display. He needed to get aboard as soon as possible, to give himself as much time as he could to solve the problem.
Twenty-five meters of boost - now thirty - no, narg it, thirty-eight, all the boat had. Acceleration pulled him "down" into the seat. One of the suit's plumbing tubes shifted and began grinding into his thigh. He'd thought he'd fixed that.
He could see the star-white drive plume long before anything else. The stack of ore, some in containers, some in kevlar bundles, some already in rough ingots, was still intact, but flexing now with the tug's misaligned thrust and random steering impulses. If it came apart it wouldn't be the equivalent of one big fusion bomb hitting next to Rockville, it would be dozens of fission bombs all over the city.
Now he was close enough to see old Four-Eight-Four's scarred yellow paint. She didn't seem to be leaking atmosphere - well no, there probably wasn't any left by now. He flipped the shuttle and burned hard to match vector.
An RCS jet fired directly into the shuttle's viewports, clouding them, pushing both craft apart. Danner switched to instruments, and the augmented-reality function in his visor. Then another jet fired opposite and the tug lurched toward him, threatening collision.
Why not? Docking to the airlock was going to be impossible anyway, and there was a lot more at stake than the cost of a single shuttle. By now he was close enough to see the rents in the tug's hull. One was large already.
To make it larger, Danner deliberately rammed the shuttle's nose into it.
He had already depressurized the shuttle, expecting he would have to EVA for the transfer. Armorglas viewports broke loose from their frames, tumbling away and around the cockpit. He barely got his arm up in time to deflect one from his faceplate.
Now he was driving a "convertible", and it had rebounded away from the tug. Oh, he thought, this is going to be tricky.
Danner had done a lot of jobs since quitting the Patrol - freefall construction, rigging, cargo handling. He'd learned to use grapple guns. Most were electromagnetic. They were often double-ended.
Setting the shuttle's autopilot to station-keeping at fifty meters, he fed out cable from one end - a monomolecular weave. Individual strands could cut through Hulloy or armorglas, never mind suit and flesh, but together they were safe to handle. He quickly tied off one end to the base of the command couch. Then he aimed the device through the torn-open overhead and fired the other. The indicator showed magnetic contact, and he pressed the button to remotely weld the pad in place.
The cable went slack and taut as the tug's jets continued firing. The shuttle's flight computer struggled to match a changing vector. Sol clipped his suit onto the cable and began pulling himself across.
He had just reached the torn hull plating when an ingot of nickel-iron came loose from the stack, tumbled down the side of it, and smashed into the shuttle. It must have massed tons. The shuttle started breaking up. The cable broke its weld and the magnetic pad flew across the wrecked cabin to catch and jam in the torn hullmetal. Danner watched it deform under stress.
He removed the suit's carabiner from the cable moments before the pad failed, whipping past, striking the side of his helmet and destroying the antenna for his suit radio. His eyes followed to see the shuttle fall away, to glow and shatter in the plume of C484's fusion rocket.
His suit's gloves were made of the same kind of weave as the cable; he'd paid extra for that. Otherwise the jagged edge of the ravaged hull would have cut right through his hand.
The one hand from which he now dangled above certain death.

He brought his other hand up and crawled inside, against the weight of the runaway torch and the still-random jolts of the tug's maneuvering jets. He wanted to take a moment to lay on the deck and collect himself, but there were no moments to spare.
Nor did he have time to be affected by the sight of people he knew, friends of his, a bright and pretty young girl, torn to pieces by space debris at well above orbital velocity.
On C484 the control room and the engine room were almost the same room. The fusion reactor's fuel feed was jammed open. He considered drawing his plasma pistol and simply blasting it - that would end the boost, change the trajectory, move the impact to an empty desert well outside Rockville, save tens of thousands of lives... and cost him his own.
The words of the Prophet came to him: "It may be better to be a live jackal than a dead lion, but it is better still to be a live lion."
The tug's computer was smashed, completely useless. Whipping out a multitool, he used the pliers to start detaching plugs and interfaces. Then he brought the emergency computer out from his satchel and worked on plugging that in. The system booted and began to show status. Bracing himself, he pressed the control to cut thrust.
He'd never appreciated weightlessness more.

The atmosphere of Crunch was starting to tickle C484, and the ore stack, by the time he got the combination under control, the RCS behaving, and the torch reignited to lift everything to a stable orbit.
Then the people came.
The Space Patrol - Navy, Navy Reserve, Coast Guard, naval militia, depending on need - had been preparing to shoot the stack down, but hadn't wanted to turn one big impact into dozens of also-big impacts. Now they sent a shuttle to rendezvous with Danner.
Not to remove him. Space law was clear. The crew of September Rose, and Solomon Danner in particular, were now the legal salvors of tug C484 and its seventy thousand tons of cargo.
Which, according to the manifest, included almost as much gemstones and platinum-group metals as the mass of the tug itself.
Then the media came. New Texas News flew their own shuttle right up to the tug moments after the Patrol did. They tried to get images of the Karmen family's corpses. Solomon drew his pistol, aimed carefully, and shot all three camera-drones out of the sky. The Space Patrol crew nodded solemnly inside their helmets and said nothing.

Sol was invited to a parade and speech in Rockville. Women were holding up babies named after him. Girls were throwing panties at him. Men were giving him more bottles than he would ever drink in his life.
The mayor had to scramble to find suitable ground transport for the parade - ore trucks, mostly, quickly decked with red-white-and-black bunting, the national colors of the Republic and of the Member Worlds of New Texas and Crunch. The procession ended at City Hall, and a podium with cameras and microphones.
He hadn't given a speech since lecturing subordinates in the Patrol, years before - and that had been in the Bureau of Ships, not a setting which lent itself to Shakespearean prose. "I only did," he explained, "what I hope any spacer, any Citizen, any Jeffersonian, any man would do. Though I am no longer an active member of the Space Patrol, I encourage girls and boys to consider the Patrol as a career. The Patrol gave me the skills, the knowledge, and the courage to do what needed to be done. Thank you." At that, he turned and walked away.

Then the money came.
Every member of the Rose's crew got a share, and a healthy one, but Solomon's was the largest of all. He'd just earned more wealth in one hour than in his entire Space Patrol career, and all the merchant berths he'd held after too.
The planetary government resolved that all repairs to September Rose would be paid for by Crunch, or federal funds from the Republic. The system's Senators and Representatives got on board with that, including replacing the wrecked shuttle and several upgrades to the Rose's systems. There was talk of medals for Solomon and the others, even the Legion of Honor, but Sol had already got his fill of publicity.
Captain Kodobatsu's share of salvage rights was enough to retire with, but the black vacuum of space was in his veins, and the only family he had was in September Rose. Sol departed; he was a spacer too, but he had something else in mind, now that it was in reach. Prrg was promoted to First Officer in his place.
Danner hopped a ship for a Short Transit back to the second planet, then rented a shuttle and flew it to Mothball Orbit. This was the storage area for out-of-service ships, far above synchronous altitude over New Texas. Most would eventually be scrapped. Some would be refurbished and returned to use, and that was Solomon Danner's intent.
There were a lot of ships to choose from, big and small, new and old, of every kind and purpose. He settled himself to think, about what he really wanted. He slewed the telescope almost randomly, looking at one or another sad, lonely derelict-
A gleam of white caught his eye.
Continued in Aurora, Part I....
Your charitable donations are deeply appreciated!
Make a Comment

Return to Aurora

Return to the Excerpts

Return to the Jeffersonian Republic Project

Return to Jeffersonian's Page